Can I grow orchids from seed?

The simple answer: Yes, but...Orchid seed is very fine and dust-like, without the nutritive endosperm present in almost all more-commonly-grown flowering plants. For this reason, orchid seed can only be grown under a very specialized set of conditions usually beyond the capability of home growers. Orchid seed must be grown in a sterile culture, not unlike that used in hospitals. If you are willing to put the time and effort into this process, not to mention the three or more years required before your plants would flower, it is certainly one of the most interesting aspects of orchid culture. On the other hand, with orchids so reasonably priced these days, why not just get flowering size plants and let the experts do the work for you?

Can I grow my orchids out-of-doors?

Yes, in some places, is the short answer. There are many different orchids that will grow extremely happily in little shade outside all year long, especially if you live in a frost-free or virtually frost-free environment. Orchids can be grown in areas with cold winters on patios or under trees during the summer months when frost is not a concern. For orchid growers in colder climates, this is frequently a fantastic solution because it allows the orchids to grow so much more effectively than they would if kept inside all year. Cymbidiums are among the best garden orchids, and growers in frost-free regions with cooler summer nights (below 60 in August and later) can raise them. There are several different sorts of cattleyas and vandas where the summer evenings are warmer.

Do they need to be fed while they are in flower? What should I be feeding my orchids?

The simple answer: Yes, if anything, flowering plants need extra feed. Your plants will need to be fertilized with a product appropriate to the media in which they are grown. In general, plants in a bark-based mix will need a fertilizer high in nitrogen ( usually in a 3 - 1 - 1 ratio), while a balanced food will do for all others (usually a 1 - 1 - 1 ratio.) If in doubt, feed with the same balanced fertilizer you use for your other container plants. Orchids will do far better with too little fertilizer than with too much. The old adage, "feed weakly, weekly" is very appropriate. Feed every week with a dilute solution. It is far easier to remember than "Did I feed last week, or not?"

How are orchids judged? What do those letters after their names mean?

The American Orchid Society (and other national groups) has established a series of criteria of excellence by which orchid plants are evaluated. Individual orchid plants ("cultivars" or "clones") may receive flower quality awards such as the First Class Certificate (FCC/AOS, 90+ points), Award of Merit (AM/AOS, 80 - 89 points), or Highly Commended Certificate (HCC/AOS, 75 - 79 points). Other awards may be given for achievement in culture, Certificate of Cultural Merit (CCM/AOS), or for botanical novelty, the Certificate of Botanical Recognition (CBR/AOS) and the Certificate of Horticultural Merit (CHM/AOS). While there are other flower awards that may be encountered, these will be the most commonly seen. Such awards are the purchaser’s assurance of a high level of flower quality, whether in the plant itself or of its parents. Plants are judged at monthly judgings held at Centers around the country, or at AOS-sanctioned orchid shows, of which there are over 250 annually around the world.

When should I water my orchids?

The straight forward response is to let the plants get close to being dry, as determined by the weight of the pot or by the pencil trick (if the plant has enough water, the point of a sharpened lead pencil will turn dark with moisture), and then apply enough water so that it flows easily through the pot. No potted plant should ever be allowed to "sit in its own water." In order to offset the larger load of the flowers, flowering plants may need to be watered more frequently. Plants need more water while they are actively growing (often in the spring and summer), and less water when they are not (usually in the winter). Increased watering frequency won't make up for a weak root system. Repotting may be needed if the roots are not thick and active. If the plant's roots are not full and healthy, repotting may be necessary (see later); alternatively, the vendor may have just repotted the plant, in which case the plant will need increased humidity to make up for the absence of root support. Finally, plants with softer, thinner foliage typically need more water than those with tougher, succulent leaves. As opposed to plants without pseudobulbs (such as phalaenopsis), plants with pseudobulbs, such as dendrobiums and cattleyas, typically prefer to dry out more between watering.

My orchid’s leaves are wrinkled and leathery...Why?

The simple answer: Lack of water or dehydration. The next step is to determine why the plant is not getting sufficient water. First, look to the roots. If the roots appear healthy, white or green and plump, and medium is in good shape, suspect underwatering, especially if the roots are white and the pot is very light. If, on the other hand, the roots are in poor condition, suspect root loss. If the plant has no roots, it cannot take up any water, no matter how much you give it. In this case, the cause may be root loss owing to overwatering or medium deterioration, or a recently repotted and poorly established plant. The immediate solution is to raise humidity in the plants’ vicinity to reduce stress on whatever roots there may be, and then deal with whether to repot or to simply wait until the plant establishes in the fresh medium.

What is the best orchid for the home?

The simple answer: Phalaenopsis. Many homes have insufficient light levels for the reflowering of most orchids. However, there are a few orchids that prefer lower light and will reflower under home light conditions. Home light means light provided by a slightly shaded south window, or an east or west window. One of the most widely available orchids of the mass market types is also the best for the home -- the phalaenopsis or moth orchid. These plants will grow easily under the same conditions enjoyed by African violets. Another good choice, but usually only for those already initiated in orchid appreciation, are the paphiopedilums or lady’s-slipper orchids. These, like phalaenopsis, have relatively attractive foliage, and will reflower in home conditions giving weeks of floral display. Both need to be kept evenly moist. Don’t allow to fully dry out, and regularly fertilized with a weak dilution of just about any available fertilizer.

What is the best potting material?

The simple answer: Whatever your vendor or source recommends and stocks is best. Orchids, in general, will grow satisfactorily in many different potting mixes if watering and fertilizing are adjusted appropriately. That is, if the basic requirements for moisture, root aeration and support are accommodated, the most readily available media in your particular area is probably the one that has proven to work the best. Orchids are grown today commercially in a variety of media, from straight fir bark, to sphagnum moss, to the increasingly popular peat-based mixes best exemplified by Pro-mix. Watering frequency is generally inversely proportional to the porosity of the media used; in other words, the faster the mix drains, the more often you’ll have to water. Complicating the answer is the knowledge that many, if not all, of the most often seen potted flowering orchid plants in garden centers and other sales venues have been potted into larger containers in fresh media almost immediately prior to shipping. This is for very practical reasons: the container and fresh mix look more attractive to consumers, and the plant can be grown in the smallest possible pot until the last minute, keeping bench space fully utilized. Such plants need to be carefully watered with the increased water needs of the flower spike balanced against the lower potential uptake of the disturbed root system.

When should I repot?

The simple answer: When fresh rooting activity is expected (generally in the spring) or is very evident, generally every one or two years. Fresh rooting activity is best shown by the nice green root tips on plump white roots. Often, the main "flush" of rooting will come from the base of the plant (in the case of phalaenopsis), or from the developing newest growth (in the case of dendrobiums and other orchids with pseudobulbs.) Orchid plants need repotting for one or a combination of two main factors: Potting mix breakdown, often evidenced by dead roots; or plant over-growing the pot, growing over the edge. In the first case, a larger pot may not be required, simply replacement of the growing media. In the second case, the plant may require dividing or may simply be shifted into a larger pot. Fresh media should always be used. A good general rule of thumb is to pot for the bottom of the plant, the root system, and not for the top, the foliage. Freshly repotted plants should be placed in a shady, humid area until continued new root growth is observed. In general, if in doubt, pot in the spring.

Where do I cut the flower spike when it is finished?

The simple answer: In most cases, cut at the base of the spike with a sharp, clean tool. Of all of the more commonly available orchids, only phalaenopsis -- the moth orchid -- will rebloom from its old spike. When most orchids have finished blooming, the spike should be cut off with a sharp and clean blade as close to the base of the spike as is practical. Phalaenopsis will generally rebloom given a little extra care. The spike should be cut between the scar where the first flower was and the last node on the stem. One of the lower nodes will then initiate and generally produce flowers within eight to 12 weeks. Younger or weaker plants may not rebloom. It is also a good idea to cut the spike off entirely by midsummer to allow the plant to grow for next year’s bloom.